Thursday, November 9, 2023

Review Operation Hotel California, The Clandestine War Inside Iraq

Tucker, Mike Faddis, Charles, Operation Hotel California, The Clandestine War Inside Iraq, Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2009


Operation Hotel California, The Clandestine War Inside Iraq is based upon the recollections of a CIA officer who was sent into Iraqi Kurdistan in 2002 to prepare for the U.S. invasion. There are short parts by the two authors Mike Tucker and Charles Faddis but the vast majority of the book are long transcripts of the agent recollecting his experiences. The CIA agent loved working with the Kurds and felt like they accomplished a lot but he was very critical of Turkey, the CIA leadership and the Bush administration who he blames for all kinds of problems with the invasion and the postwar chaos.


The book can be broken up into two broad parts. The first is one what the CIA was up to Kurdistan in 2002-2003. In July 2002 a small team of agents was sent into Kurdistan from Turkey. They had three main tasks. First they found a base by an Islamist group called Ansar al-Islam which was working on development weapons of mass destruction and included around 200 Al Qaeda members who’d fled there after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Second they had to make ties with the two main Kurdish parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan so that they would support the U.S. and help liberate northern Iraq. Third the CIA was to create Kurdish teams and work with an ex-Iraqi general with a group he formed called the Scorpions to carry out sabotage and intelligence gathering missions to prepare for the coming invasion.


The CIA agent named Sam greatly enjoyed working with the Kurds. He believed they were brave men who’d been screwed over by the U.S. twice before when it abandoned them in 1975 when the Nixon administration cut off aid at the request of the Shah of Iran and in 1991 when the U.S. encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam after the Gulf War and then did nothing to help them. Despite that the Kurds hated Baghdad and were more than eager to fight the Iraqi army and more. They carried out various missions for the Americans which always impressed Sam.


The second half of the book is Sam’s criticisms of Turkey, the CIA and the Bush administration. Turkey was opposed to the U.S. working with the Kurds fearing they would gain more power which would complicate its own Kurdish problem. Ankara therefore blocked weapons going to Kurdistan and harassed CIA members trying to enter Iraq. That included denying guns to a U.S. team entering Iraq. Sam also had harsh words for the Agency’s leadership and Washington DC because they never listened to his team on the ground in Iraq. Sam for instance, wanted the Ansar al-Islam base destroyed but Washington said no. The book doesn’t give an explanation why but it was because the White House was afraid a strike on the group would divert from the coming war. Sam compared this to the U.S. not sending enough troops to destroy Al Qaeda in Tora Bora in Afghanistan. There too the CIA asked for more troops and support to carry on the fight against terrorists and got nothing.


That was just the start of the agent’s invective against Washington. Most importantly the Kurds had worked out Iraq’s 5th Corps in the north with over 100,000 troops giving up but Donald Rumsfeld blocked the CIA from excepting any surrenders. Sam believed that if they had formally capitulated the Iraqi troops could’ve been used for security and would have been accounted for. Instead many of the soldiers went home with their guns and would later join the insurgency. Sam puts the blame for this squarely at the door of President Bush who the agent repeatedly said had no clue what was going on in Iraq. That was the agents’ general view of DC. It was removed from what the CIA team was learning on the ground and didn’t want its input either. This same opinion has been voiced in many other books and studies on the conduct of the Iraq War.


Operation Hotel California is a very quick read. The print is large and the transcript sections have small margins. CIA agent Sam’s recollections are fast and to the point. The writing by the two authors are almost superfluous because they come so rarely and don’t add much to what Sam said. There’s also a lot of macho bravado at the start about how the CIA team were killers and men on a mission. The biggest contribution the book makes to the literature on the Iraq War is the difference between what the U.S. was actually doing to prepare for the war and during the invasion and what the White House was saying publicly. There was a large gap between words and deeds.


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